The narrative for the contribution of distributed renewables to Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7) has centered around lighting and phone charging for the past 10 years.
One of the most exciting areas for the distributed renewable energy (DRE) sector, particularly mini-grids, is the realization of “productive use” -- enabling creation or expansion of agricultural, commercial or industrial business via electricity access, thereby contributing to socio-economic development. Initially, many mini-grid developers focused on powering telecom towers to serve as anchor loads, then extended power to remote communities and businesses on the back of that anchor (Smart Power India pioneered this approach). While questions remain about how big of a role productive use applications will have as anchor loads unto themselves, great examples of what is possible are emerging.
Below are some of the other applications showing commercial viability.
Whether it’s rice hulling, maize grinding, honey harvesting, oil expelling or processing of other agricultural products, mini-grids are helping rural communities save time, increase output and generate economic growth. In one case, the amount of rice processed for a women’s collective in India increased 100 times with the introduction of electric millers and fans.
Clean Drinking Water Production
Many of the countries affected by energy poverty also face serious challenges with access to clean water and sanitation. Private mini-grid developers are starting to set up standalone water purification systems, many using reverse osmosis, that are delivering affordable drinking water. In India, one system provides clean drinking water to 1,000 homes daily, producing 2,000 liters of clean, potable water every hour at the cost of $0.002/liter.
Cold storage is already starting to gain serious traction in both Africa and India, helping to extend shelf life of cash crops, milk, flowers and other perishable goods. Developers see cold storage as a “standard fixture” built into rural mini-grids.
Irrigation and Irrigation Services
A $60 billion opportunity in India alone, solar irrigation is probably the most mature of mini-grid productive use applications, with huge untapped potential remaining. Already, 43,000 pumps are running in India, and companies in Africa like Futurepump and SunCulture are also expanding rapidly. Besides irrigation, Claro Energy thinks other applications from irrigation are possible such as “fogging” for livestock and aquaculture and pisciculture. New business models are also being built around irrigation collectives (i.e. the Solar Power as a Remunerative Crop - SPaRC - project) that are producing surplus power and selling it back to the grid.
Mini-grids are powering rural manufacturing businesses that are making furniture, producing apparel or welding metal.